T he opening chapter of Chew Hee Chiat’s story will be familiar to those who once aspired to become musicians, but were restrained in the starting blocks by parental objections to a career unlikely to bring affluence.
But the conductor and composer’s achievements over the past 30 years should encourage those more inclined to follow their hearts than conform to sensible stereotypes.
Born in the Malaysian state of Penang, Chew is the resident conductor of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO). The 43-year-old will take the podium for at least half a dozen concerts in the ensemble’s new season, which will launch in September. He will also be closely involved in its second International Conducting Competition for Chinese Music.
Chew first appeared on the troupe’s radar in 2000, not with baton in hand but clutching his submission for the International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Compositions organised by the orchestra. He was placed second runner-up. As a non-Chinese entrant, he raised eyebrows.
“They couldn’t tell where this guy was from,” he says. “It didn’t sound like it had been written by someone from China, and it made them wonder about me. It was probably because of my Southeast Asian heritage, and the way I presented that in my music.”
Two years later, Chew was taken on by the orchestra as assistant conductor. He became associate conductor in 2007, and was promoted to his current position in 2009.
He fell in love with music as a high school student, despite his father’s wish that he follow a more secure career path. “But if I find something I like, I’ll go all the way for it,” he says.
He found his first rung of opportunity in the school’s Chinese orchestra. It was lamentably short of teachers, so the senior students had to teach the juniors. Chew began by playing the dizi, a Chinese flute, but also tried out different instruments, assimilating the basics of their various playing techniques.
“I liked picking up different instruments. I became more and more involved [with the orchestra] and eventually became the conductor,” he says.
Chew soon realised that he was going to need a more systematic Western training if his aspirations for a musical career were going to be realised. He thought about the violin, and breezed in to an instrument shop with the pocket money he had saved up. “I came out with a cello; the sound was closer to a human voice,” he says.
As his father held the purse strings, he was obliged to pursue a degree in computer science in the US. But before leaving, he spent 18 months in Kuala Lumpur gaining transferable credits for his intended course in the United States.
There, Chew joined what eventually became known as the Professional Cultural Orchestra of Malaysia (PCOM).
He started by playing cello in the ensemble, “then, somehow, I became their conductor.” That “somehow” was becoming identifiable as suitability for a life on the podium. After gaining his degree and fulfilling his father’s wishes, Chew felt the reins relax. He transferred to the University of South Carolina, where he gained a qualification in orchestral conducting.
He returned to Kuala Lumpur in 1996 to re-enter the music world. “At the time, the [PCOM] was aspiring to be one of the better Chinese orchestras in Malaysia,” Chew explains. “They hired me as their music director, and I spent about six years increasing the standard of their playing.”
And so to Hong Kong, where for the past 11years the HKCO has proved to be an ideal setting for his international background and spirit of enterprise.
Celina Chin Man-wah, the orchestra’s executive director, provides the context: mainland orchestras comprise wholly of mainland players, whereas the HKCO takes about 30 per cent of its members from the mainland, Malaysia, Thailand and, more and more often, from Taiwan. Chew adds that it’s Hong Kong’s unusual history that has helped to shape the orchestra’s identity.
“The development of the HKCO is like the development of Hong Kong, which has gone from being a fishing village to a cosmopolitan city,” he says. “It’s the openness of the orchestra that attracts me most.”
Chew has clearly enjoyed his time working in this milieu, not least because of what he’s been able to learn from working with music director Yan Huichang. Conducting a Chinese music ensemble, he explains, requires standard technique, plus something more.
“That ‘more’ came from Maestro Yan,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from him. He has a very broad knowledge, and very distinctive musical sense of how to mould an orchestra in an aesthetically Chinese way. Although I understood how the instruments worked, I now know that there are many more possibilities in terms of colours than before I met him.”
In return, the orchestra has also benefited from Chew’s experience. “I think I’ve been able to provide a different perspective from that of my boss. He didn’t hire me because I do things like him. I come from Southeast Asia, and my perspective is a little bit different.
“I have also had some exposure to the West due to my educational background. My exposure to the pop music world has been useful, for instance.”
That experience will come to the fore when he directs The Moon is Like My Heart, an upcoming concert tribute to Teresa Teng, the legendary Taiwanese singer.
Chew is looking forward to next season, when a number of his compositions will be performed in Taiwan. He’s also excited about a project with the African-American jazz musician Howard McCrary.
“He’s a great jazz pianist and singer,” Chew says. “I’ll be working with him in a concert called The Chinese Orchestra Swings with Jazz. Chinese orchestral music should belong to the world, not only to Chinese people.”